Institute News

Filmmaker and Historian Christian Delage Discusses His Work in Facebook Live Interview

Documentary filmmaker, historian and curator Christian Delage gave a live interview on the Institute’s Facebook page last week, wherein he discussed his past 20 years of experience researching and making films on genocide, and where his latest project on the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks diverges from standardized methods for gathering testimony.

Before his public lecture on the role of the witness throughout history, from the Holocaust to the November 13 attacks in Paris, Delage spoke candidly with USC Shoah Foundation’s social media manager Holly Blackwelder about his fascination with the documentation process of testimony and how he came to work on several projects, such as his traveling exhibit “Filming the Camps: From Hollywood to Nuremberg” that recently opened for eight months at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.

“When people watch footage from the liberation of the camps, they are confronted very rarely with the origin of the footage,” Delage said, hinting at his dissatisfaction with previous efforts at documenting tragedy. “The footage has been re-edited, sometimes you don’t even know who made it because people think it’s not important. My focus was to say that this footage, we show it to you like it has been made. We won’t re-edit.”

“Filming the Camps,” of which Delage is curator, explores the World War II experiences of Hollywood directors John Ford, George Stevens and Samuel Fuller. Each director served with the U.S. Armed Forces and Secret Services, filming life on the front lines and the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps.

The exhibit includes the film they shot, as well as private letters and footage from their personal archives. The film presented is almost completely unedited, including the opening claps and end of the reel. Archival responses to the footage, including the filmmakers’ own written reports and comments from writers and scholars, contextualize and rebuild the original readings of the films.

“It’s always a bad thing to extract something that interests you but that destroys the spirit of the entire film,” Delage said. “You don’t pay attention to the full archive, only to one segment of it. What is important in an interview is not specifically the information gathered, but the way the interviewee deals with the moment– we often miss it.”

Delage, the director of the Institut d’Histoire du Temps Present in Paris, used this understanding with his effort to record 30 interview with witnesses and survivors of the November 13, 2015 attacks in Paris that killed 130 people. The research program of the Institut d’Histoire du Temps Present will be titled “13 November Attacks: Lives That Will Never Be Ordinary Again.”

“When I made interviews with Holocaust survivors,” Delage said in a previous interview, “the youngest were 85. I was not born during time they were deported and they were very far from the event they endured. The average age [of the November 13 survivors] is 33. It’s the first time I’m older than the people I would interview.”

In their interviewing, his team did not stop at survivors and witnesses, but extended invitations for interviews to the firefighters and officers who tended to the scene; the psychologists and doctors with all different contributions to the narrative. They would also let their subjects speak as long as they wanted, with no intention to cut any information out of the final product.

With similar attacks across Europe and the rise of neo-Nazism in the United States, Delage said he believes these kinds of testimonies – especially when experienced in full – can be good for a viewer. For him, it’s a matter of feeling for the witness, having empathy.